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Utah putting more sex offenders in prison

Published January 7, 2012 8:16 pm

Crime • Reporting, sentence lengths, law changes behind tenfold rate jump, experts say.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Utah has 10 times more sex offenders locked up than it did 30 years ago.

Since 1980, the rate of felony sex offenders has risen steadily, now making up nearly one-third of the prison population.

While Utah's rate of incarcerated sex offenders is far above the national average — 76 sex offenders for every 100,000 residents compared with the national rate of nearly 52 — it is on par with surrounding states such as Idaho and Wyoming.

With numbers as large as these, it's easy to think advocates and authorities would be dismayed, but they actually look at it as progress. They attribute the rise to lengthier prison sentences and a society much more comfortable with reporting such crimes. The political will of Utah lawmakers over the past 15 years has also been to pass laws ensuring sex offenders are sent to prison rather than probation and receive mental health treatment before any release.

Holly Mullen, interim executive director of the Rape Recovery Center, says she has seen a steady increase in the number of people calling the center's crisis hotline, coming in for counseling and requesting rape testing kits at medical facilities. This year, they have provided 6,000 services compared with last year's 4,500.

It's not surprising to Mullen, considering that phone surveys have indicated that in Utah, 1 in 3 women will experience some sort of sexual assault while nationally it's 1 in 5.

But increasingly, sexual assaults have become a more socially acceptable crime to report.

"I get the sense that there are more women coming through the center who are more prone to discuss their sexual assaults openly or put their name to it," Mullen said. "For years, victims have been shrouded in shame, but I slowly see that changing."

Reporting alone, though, doesn't account for the increase. The state's demographics also play a large role.

Alana Kindness, executive director of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said the rates in Utah likely are higher because of the state's youthful population.

In surveys, most sexual abuse victims report they were first abused before they were 18, and Utah is the youngest state in the nation.

"We have a high, fast-growing population of victims," Kindness said.

Molly Prince, a therapist who has worked with sex offenders and their victims for 16 years, says she is seeing more reporting of sex crimes, especially those involving family members and close acquaintances. Hard numbers on how many sexual assaults beyond rape are reported each year is difficult to find, and most advocates rely on anecdotal evidence from their years in the field.

"The state of Utah, historically, has been such a paternal system that no one told on men in power — dads, scout leaders, bishops, priests, teachers — and you find that the majority of sex abusers have been sexually abused themselves, so this gets perpetuated through the generations," Prince said. "But now, we've made it clear as a society that it is not OK. We're peeling away the secrecy, and it's coming out more and more."

In addition to an increase in reporting, prosecutions have come a long way since the 1980s.

"The willingness to report, the trust in system that it will be taken seriously, and the whole enhancement of the awareness of these crimes and how they are treated has led to this increase," said Blake Nakamura, chief deputy of the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office. He adds that reporting laws have changed, including prosecution for certain third parties who fail to report sexual abuse.

"It's a big evolution," Nakamura said. "Back then, these instances were swept under the rug. Now it's more open and prosecuted."

He points to the community outrage that surrounds such crimes, and the subsequent actions taken by the Legislature, prosecutors and judges that has led to lengthier sentences.

Jacey Skinner, director of the Utah Sentencing Commission, says the total population of sex offenders has risen rapidly because nearly all felony sex offenses carry a maximum of life in prison. While few sex offenders serve that much time, a decades-long sentence is not uncommon.

"As more people are sentenced, it's not the rotating door there," Skinner said. "So, the population numbers continue to increase."

While prison sentences increase in length, the sheer number of offenders being sentenced for sex crimes is on the rise as well.

The number of offenders sentenced more than doubled in the past 30 years, and the number of convicted felons sent to prison jumps after 1996, when the state eliminated its mandatory-minimum prison sentences.

Policymakers thought mandatory minimums would result in more sex offenders going to prison, but in reality, fewer were sent away because it encouraged lawyers to seek plea deals for lesser charges, Skinner said.

"When offenders' only option is to plead to something that has a mandatory minimum, they were less likely to volunteer for that," she said. "Because those kinds of cases are so difficult to try, and the victims are very fragile, prosecutors were more willing to give plea agreements to lesser offenses that didn't have that mandatory sentence with it."

A conviction of a felony sex offense such as rape or child sex abuse will lead the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole to keep an inmate for a minimum of anywhere between 31/2 years and 21 years behind bars, based on their previous criminal history and the severity of their crime.

That raises more questions for Kindness.

According to the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice's 2007 Rape in Utah Report, 607 sexual assaults were reportedbut only 70 were reported to police and of those, 19 resulted in a conviction.

But the reporting and prosecuting may be improving too well for the prison system to keep up.

"If we were to hold accountable all the people doing it, we would be in a pretty tough situation," Kindness said. "So we're going to have to work on that prison capacity issue as well."

smcfarland@sltrib.com

Twitter: @sheena5427 —

By the numbers

• $28,000 : Annual cost of housing an inmate in prison.

• $950,000: Average amount spent for sex offender therapy in prison per year.

• $2.6 million: Cost for housing about 92 sex offenders for treatment in community corrections centers annually.

• $330,000 and $780,000: The least and most money spent by Adult Probation and Parole each year for sex-offender treatment programs.

• $3,500: Amount spent on one inmate to complete 18 months of sex offender therapy.